Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Equalizing the Equalizer

In Iraq, where rampant lawlessness and a feeble central government fuel feelings of desperation and insecurity among the civilian population, there is one man to turn to when all else fails: the Iraqi version of The Equalizer - Moqtada al-Sadr. As cited in a post last month [emphasis mine throughout]:
Hundreds of thousands of people have turned away from al-Sistani to the far more aggressive al-Sadr. Sabah Ali...said that he had switched allegiance after the murder of his brother by Sunni gunmen. "I went to Sistani asking for revenge for my brother," he said. "They said go to the police, they couldn't do anything.

"But even if the police arrest them, they will release them for money, because the police are bad people. So I went to the al-Sadr office. I told them about the terrorists' family. They said, 'Don't worry, we'll get revenge for your brother'. Two days later, Sadr's people had killed nine of the terrorists, so I felt I had revenge for my brother. I believe Sadr is the only one protecting the Shia against the terrorists."
As we see from this recent article (via Swopa), Moqtada is still gittin'-r-done and honing his credentials as would-be enforcer:

[S]ectarian killing exploded in river towns...to the north of [Baghdad] Friday after suspected Sunni insurgents kidnapped and beheaded 17 Shiite laborers from date palm groves in the predominantly Sunni hamlet of Duluiyah, across the river from Balad.

Shiite elders of Balad said they called in the Baghdad militias of Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr -- whose bloc is the largest in Iraq's Shiite-led government -- to take revenge. [...]

The total number of victims received by Balad's hospital morgue held steady at 80 on Monday, Badawi said. Members of Sadr's Mahdi Army militia were blocking Sunni families from picking up more of their dead from the streets, he said.
It is in this way, and through his fiery brand of demagoguery, that al-Sadr draws his power directly from the people themselves - regardless of his official position in the governing coalition of Shiite political parties (UIA). As tensions and bloodshed reach a fevered pitch, support for Sadr among ordinary Iraqis has increased at the expense of Sistani and other Shiite leaders. This shift in relative power has not gone unnoticed or ignored - especially by groups like the Supreme Council for the Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) whose members are known to clash, often violently, with Sadr's people in an ongoing internecine Shiite power struggle.

As such, there are indications that certain factions in the Shiite coalition might be moving to outflank al-Sadr in an attempt to curtail some of his burgeoning influence. Prime Minister Maliki, though, realizes that his own Dawa party is too small, and al-Sadr's movement at the moment represents too large of a bloc in the UIA, to challenge al-Sadr openly - even with the backing of the UIA's other major player, SCIRI, with its formidable Badr Corp. militia.

Given SCIRI's recent history of confrontation with al-Sadr's forces in and around Basra and other oil reach and strategic sites in Shiite southern Iraq, SCIRI has ample incentive to try to neuter their upstart rival. But even with a Dawa/SCIRI alliance, Maliki and his American backers must take pains to avoid being perceived as overtly antagonistic to al-Sadr for fear of unleashing an even larger intra-Shiite civil war. It is a strategy of small steps, marginal victories and plausible deniability. If push ever did come to shove, it is likely that Maliki (and even SCIRI) would choose to mollify Sadr rather than risk rending the Shiite alliance - leaving them vulnerable to Sunni incursions and resurgence.

Against this backdrop, we get the steady drip, drip of news reports telling of sporadic fighting between al-Sadr's Mahdi militia on the one hand, and "Iraqi government forces" [read: SCIRI] and US forces on the other. When the fighting gets too intense, or some act taken too brazen, Maliki issues a condemnation of the "American tactics." But as the sound from Maliki's loud protest fades in the distance, the temporarily suspended fighting renews.

SCIRI's cooperation with Maliki in these efforts comes at a price - not that Maliki seems too concerned with the bill. Behind the scenes, SCIRI has been taking steps to further shoe-horn its cadres into official Iraqi government positions. The first order of business has been legitimizing SCIRI's militia, while simultaneously downplaying its continued existence, influence and reach. There was this sleight of hand last week:
At a lavish dinner last week for members of parliament, the Cabinet and other leaders, al-Maliki spoke about the need for parties to give up their militias.

But outside, hundreds of gunmen guarding the affair were not police: They were fighters loyal to the host, Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, head of [SCIRI] the Shiite coalition that dominates parliament. His party says its militia, the Badr Brigade, has been dissolved — but Sunnis say it still exists and is quietly involved in killings.
And this from Iraq's interior ministry, Jawad al-Bolani, on allegations of militia [read: Badr Corp.] infiltration of official Iraqi police and army units:

[Jawad al-Bolani] rejected allegations that Iraq's police and military have played a major role in the death squads blamed for Baghdad's surging violence, saying that only a small number of all those caught in U.S. or Iraqi raids were members of the police or army.

...Bolani and his predecessor as interior minister, Bayan Jabr, both have minimized the possibility of any police involvement in the nightly killings. "We are experiencing a problem of impressions" regarding a police role in killings and militia infiltration of police, Bolani said Friday.
If you recall, Bayan Jabr was seen as one of the impediments to tamping the sectarian violence because of his status as a SCIRI representative (it was reported that the Badr Corp. operated out of Interior, often employing extreme, death squad tactics). Looks like Bolani does not represent as clean a break from Jabr as desired. Even the mendacity sounds the same.

With SCIRI's forces operating under the mantle and guise of official government forces, while the Interior Ministry runs interference for them, the process of consolidation of control is underway:

Operating between the insurgent Sunni Arab suburbs of Baghdad and the Shiite militia-dominated south, Col. Salam al-Mamuri and his Scorpion commando team were a rarity among Iraqi security forces, American and Iraqi colleagues said: a police unit fighting on both sides of the country's sectarian divide.

On Friday, a bomb blew apart Mamuri and an aide at the Scorpions' headquarters in the southern city of Hilla....

Mamuri's comparative evenhandedness enforcing the law may have earned him an enemy within his own sect, the Shiites. Interior Minister Jawad al-Bolani in Baghdad called it a "possibility and a probability" that the assassination was at least in part an inside job, because the killer was able to gain access to Mamuri's office to plant the bomb.
Related activity in recent weeks has been picking up momentum. Last Thursday, Iraq's legislature pushed through a resolution enabling Iraqi regions to form near-autonomous governing structures - essentially green-lighting the partitioning of Iraq. This resolution has been a long time goal of SCIRI - which looks to control much of the oil rich southern region - as well as the Kurds, but has been vehemently opposed by Sadr's group and the Sunnis (whose respective power bases reside in oil-poor regions). Previously, Maliki's Dawa party opposed this plan, and their lack of support made achieving the 140 vote threshold an unattainable goal. But, according to Juan Cole, the results of this vote could be further evidence of the flowering alliance between Dawa and SCIRI - at the expense of Sadr. Says Cole:

What I can't figure out is where Abdul Aziz got the 140 votes from. The Kurds will have supported him, with 58 seats. But then his [SCIRI] and its independent allies in the Shiite United Iraqi Alliance only had 63 seats when the prime ministerial elections were held. That is 121. They picked up an astonishing 19 seats. Did al-Da'wa, the party of the prime minister, defect to al-Hakim on this one? That is the only thing that would make sense of the vote to me. The Sadr Movement, Fadhila, and the Sunnis were opposed.
While there have been reports of fraud on the part of the proposal's backers (some say that they only got 138 votes (or less), and not the requisite 140), it should be noted that Maliki's government is thus far treating the passage of this resolution as legitimate. That seems to indicate Dawa's support. Meanwhile, the US/Dawa/SCIRI pincers continue to squeeze al-Sadr:

Sadr's party reacted with fury [Tuesday] to the alleged arrest of one of its top officials, whom they said was seized overnight by US forces, and vowed to stage protests in volatile west Baghdad, the scene of recent sectarian violence.

..."US forces raided the home of Sheikh Mazen Al Saedi, head of the Sadr movement offices in Karkh [west Baghdad] and arrested him," Hamdallah Al Rikabi, a spokesman for Sadr's movement, said. "Five other members of the office were arrested as well in a series of raids in Shuala," he said, referring to a Shiite neighborhood in northeast Baghdad.

The coalition would not immediately comment on the claim, but in recent weeks joint US and Iraqi raiding teams have been targeting alleged death squad cells linked to Shiite militias in an effort to stem sectarian murders.
Maliki has since ordered the release of Sheikh Mazen Al Saedi, perhaps continuing to manipulate the pressure valves so as to avoid a Sadr-induced meltdown. But there is also this:

The Sadr Movement of Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr...defended the freedom of the press on Tuesday in the face of threats by the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq to close al-Zaman newspaper and the al-Iraqiyah television channel.
Interesting threat for SCIRI to be voicing - I'm trying to determine the authority invoked to make such a move, and whether this represents an expansion of the confrontation. It is possible that I'm mis-reading the situation, and that I'm overplaying the tensions and chess moves between SCIRI, Maliki and al-Sadr, but there are strong indications that subtle yet significant shifts are underway. The fault lines within the Shiite coalition should not be dismissed out of hand.

If my theory is correct, the upside of this intrigue, and the related maneuvers, would be the containment of such a radical and destabilizing force as al-Sadr. The downside would be that, in order to execute such a strategy, the Iraqi government has been forced to move closer to SCIRI (itself a party with close ties to Iran - and heavily implicated in death squad activities and other sectarian violence). That's like sacking Peter to appoint Paul. Guess that's why all those fantasies of coups and strongman saviors die hard in Iraq.

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